Jan 19, 2007

Life as a Luxury Item

Earlier this week, I talked to a very rich woman for just over an hour and a half.
She seemed the sort of person for whom "conspicuous consumption" had been coined. Not only were her fingers encrusted with enough rings to make Snoop Dogg look frugal, but she also had these particular glasses whose frames seemed to made out of one of Versaille's curlier mouldings. She was very low level in terms of ability, but apparently insisted on having a native speaker as a teacher. She wants to learn English to help out her hobby- travelling. She likes to traipse about the world to see the original versions of various artworks. This spring, she's going to Rome.
Later, I edited a university professor's English-language resume. The man is smart, published, and respected. I may be his teacher, but he's got quite an enviable career. He also likes to travel.
I am expensive.
Very expensive, actually. As are my coworkers. We've bandied about a bunch of desriptors for our rates. Among them are "shit expensive," "damn expensive," "hella expensive," and "fuck-all expensive." All of these are more or less accurate.
A regular group class costs about sixty bucks, and a fifty minute private class costs almost one hundred. This Boggles (and Scrabbles and Strategos) my mind. But, I can sort of understand how market forces drive up my price. While this sort of job is actually fairly popular with people of a given sort, we're not exactly easy to find. And we do rack up a lot of expenses. We need to be trained, our work visas have to be taken care of, and my particular company takes care of the apartment deposit that one much secure in order to have a place here. This is known as key money, and in Japan, can usually be the equivalent of a few thousand dollars.
I'm going to digress for a few moments.
I can understand that I'm actually a fairly scarce commodity here in Japan. Other than English teachers such as myself, native English speakers aren't that easy to find here. So, someone who can teach a language with the ear of a native speaker is scarce, and does command a high price.
Coming from an American perspective, this is rather jarring.
Go to a major American city, and you can probably find native speakers of any number of languages other than English. Spanish, obviously, but my neighborhood back in Portland had a substantial amount of Vietnamese immigrants, for instance. My parents used to be neighbors with a couple from Ethiopia, and there's a small Russian neighborhood as well. Add to that all manner of drifters and immigrants from all over the place, and you've got quite the mix.
And that's just Portland, which is by no means huge.
Take somewhere like Chicago or New York, and you can probably find representatives not only of languages, but dialects. And in the U.S., this is normal.
This is not normal in Japan.
Skill with English is valued here, both for its utility and because English is considered cool. This is a good thing, I think. The U.S. could do well to follow Japan's enthusisasm for multilingualism, even if Japanese English does end up giving us lots of unintentionally hilarious translations.
Ok, I'm done digressing now.
So, we've got lots of up front expenses that makes us hard to get. Most teachers only stay for a year, so the company has to hire new ones fairly constantly, who in turn also rack up a lot of upfront expenses that need to be paid for. On top of that, we've also got normal salaries that need to be taken care of.
If you have a commodity that's scarce, expensive to acquire, and also has upkeep costs, the end result of this is that the average student needs to comp all that. One pays quite a bit to have the priveledge of learning a second language directly from a native speaker.
So, I can understand the economic reasons. From that point of view, it all seems pretty reasonable.
There is the obvious question, "Am I really worth that much?"
Really. Would I pay almost a sixty bucks to talk to the Japanese equivalent of me for fifty minutes? Even thinking about the economic logistics of it, I can't really convince myself that the answer is yes.
For one thing, I'm new to this "having a real job" thing. I did work full time in a dysfunctional (but charming!) local bookstore following university, but my pay was so paltry that spending twenty bucks at a bar seemed like a wild night out. So, when I think about numbers like, say, "sixty dollars," I still think of them in terms of significant percentages of a now obsolete paycheck.
For another thing, I've met Japanese native speakers plenty of times in the U.S. There were a fair amount of them at the UofO, and our Japanese language section in the bookstore was (along with Spanish) the most popular of the various foreign language sections. So, for reasons I mentioned above about the U.S., I find it hard to accept that I'm worth what I am.
I know exactly what every English word in our class means. Even by native speaker standards, I do dare say I'm a pretty good at "wordy-talky" stuff. And, at the risk of sounding arrogant, they're probably getting better English instruction with me than they every got in school. I suppose that what I offer here is something singular, so I shouldn't feel so bad about it.
Still, it's quite odd to think about the demographics of the sort of people that I'm teaching. I'm basically here to be of service to well-off, educated, motivated people. Or, as the case often is, their children. Back in my bookstore days people would agonize and think about whether or not they wanted to buy a three dollar used paperback. Now, people casually plunk down a wad of cash to have a native speaker talk about art with them, edit their resume, or tell their children that "F is for fox."
I'm quite ambivalent about this. I'm not cynical, certainly- I like what I do. But, I know that I'm not exactly doing Peace Corps type stuff here. I'm a luxury item living a "Wowie-zowie, I'm in Japan!" life. When I think to hard about it, it doesn't seem probable. Real, certainly, but also discordant and a little absurd.


Eric said...

There are lots of people in this world who plunk down $100 to spend an hour with someone else. Of course, it usually involves rim jobs, but you get the idea. You're the language equivalent of a toe shrimping. Enjoy!

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

ever wonder why 98% of GEOS teachers are good looking? Who do you want to be your private teacher? Ever notice how the managers match up potential students with the opposite gender teacher for interviews?

In a culture where hostesses (or at least the clubs they work for) get $100/hr just to pour drinks and light cigarettes, that much for English lessons isn't that bad.

but for the record: LeoPalace doesn't charge key money or agent fees.

and some students do have better vocabularies and/or grasp of grammar than some teachers I know. Then you really wonder why they are paying so much. Sometimes I REALLY think it's because they don't have any other friends. seriously.

rock on

SonicLlama said...

I don't live in a Leo Palace, but I didn't know that they don't charge key money. That is... interesting...
A few of my students do have really, really good technical mastery of grammar, but don't know how to use it like a native speaker does.
As for the various whorish analogies, the title of this blog is a bit of a double entendre- I'm surprised that no mentioned that yet. I do think that some students just pay to hang out with gaijin. They sort of weird me out, those ones.
You know, come to think of it, Kori, most of the people I work with are quite good looking. Except for me. I'm hideous.